In 2009 the only way to get from Chengdu to Hounglong National Park was to fly because the road had been wiped out by an earthquake two years earlier. While driving the final leg of the journey, our van stopped for a construction blockage, so I got out to look around.
A young man pushed his girlfriend up to me, and she said: “Hello.”
“Nin how.” (My rendition of “hello” in Chinese.)
“You speak Chinese.” She was no doubt pretending to believe I had a handle on the language.
“That’s all.” Not true, I could also say “Jiuzhaigou” and “waiguoren,” but it seemed unlikely that she cared any more than you do.
She was an English major and wanted to know about my reason for being there. I pointed to my daughter, Shawna, who was still in the van and explained that my mother and I were visiting her. The girl said that Shawna was very beautiful, and Mom looked young. I soaked in the compliments but didn’t think to return any. (I apologize to Americans with good manners for the “dull-witted clods” stereotype I set in motion that day.) She then asked if she could get pictures with me, and her group clustered around me for the shoot. Foreigners are a serious novelty in China.
When our guide, Michael, called a meeting, our huddle included an older woman selling beads. Michael announced that the wait to go to Hounglong would be too long to allow us to see much, so he offered an alternative. Then it turned out that the wait was over, and we could stick with Plan A. I was relieved not to miss Hounglong, a beautiful mountain park with pools tinted different colors by a variety of minerals. Then it turned out to be the dry season, so we didn’t get the full effect, but getting there was one of our best adventures.
The road was a work in progress. Half was rocky dirt, and half was possibly a cement conglomeration with shale, covered with plastic/fabric. We drove mostly on the dirt portion shared with lots of traffic and construction. Marc, our Tibetan driver, honked vigorously at a big backhoe backing into our path. Marc did that a lot, but the other drivers seemed to pay no attention. Little tractors pulled trailers the size of small pickup beds. The equipment was very heavy-duty but still looked like children’s toys pulling up to dump a load of heavy metal beam pieces. Marc threaded his way through an obstacle course of equipment, steep drop-offs, buses, cars, dirt piles, holes, and workers always with much honking before passing. The construction was a strange mix of modern and primitive. Men used sledge hammers to break rock into pieces small enough to fit the puny trailers. Another man used a hand saw to cut board to make a form for a concrete ditch.
My son-in-law, who is a Chinese ethnic minority member, tells us that they have a saying that a Russian tractor will crush a Chinese tank. Okay, their equipment isn’t optimal, but given the picture below, even the Russians will surely agree that China has some of the gutsiest workers on the planet.